Review: Atlanta Chamber Winds ensemble dazzles with skill and infectious energy

The Atlanta Chamber Winds ensemble took the stage at First Presbyterian Church of Atlanta on Sunday, April 3, as part of the ongoing [email protected] series. According to event organizer and First Presbyterian Director of Worship and the Arts Jens Korndörfer, the concert came about as the happy intersection of two goals: his own in showcasing chamber music that didn’t rely on groups of piano and strings, and ACW’s conductor Robert J. Ambrose needing a venue to present his ensemble. The union of those two complementary agendas would prove fruitful for the listening public even if the event itself was only sparsely attended.

Founded by Ambrose in 2006, the Atlanta Chamber Winds is the only chamber wind ensemble in the metropolitan area and features members of the Atlanta Opera and Ballet Orchestras as well as Georgia State University faculty. To date the ensemble has released two recordings, both of them on the Albanian Record label. Its debut album, Music from Parisreceived positive reviews from the American Record Guide and Gramophone magazine. Its latest recording, Wind Musicfeatures six works by notable American composers including Pulitzer Prize winner Leslie Bassett.

Susan Irais Reyes Photography
Christina Gavin (Photo by Susan Irais Reyes Photography)

The ensemble’s impeccable skill and infectious chemistry were readily apparent with the opening bars of Mozart’s Serenade in E-flat Major, K. 375. The group’s extraordinary sense of balance — nothing felt overblown or understated — was notable from the outset.

Wind instruments can be the most temperamental elements of the orchestra, prone to shrieks and blats if played too hard or else dissolving into a dull drone if not given proper breath support, so the group’s collective mastery of that delicate balancing act was an experience to relish .

Of particular note in the ensemble’s carefully crafted sound were oboists Lara Dahl, Principal Senior Lecturer of Oboe and Music Survey at Georgia State University, and Christina Gavin, an alumnus of the San Francisco Symphony and current second oboe for the Atlanta Opera. Both commanded the notably difficult double reed instrument with effortless grace.

Dahl and Gavin would switch chairs throughout the show as their roles in the different pieces shifted. Each change was accompanied by a cheerful exchange of smiles between the players, the sort of pleasantry that underscored the lush sonic interplay between them. It was that cohesion that made them particularly adept at capturing the lighthearted whimsy that is a staple of much of Mozart’s work and the Serenade in particular.

The afternoon’s second piece, Contrafacta Hungarica by noted Hungarian composer Ferenc Farkas, continued the afternoon’s apparent theme of cheerful, upbeat music with a six-part work based on medieval and Renaissance dances. It was an enjoyable piece, but most captiv was Ambrose’s. He is almost animalistic in his articulations — given to a sort of primal flourishing that could easily be mistaken for an interpretive dance. That eccentricity is paired with a precise articulation of the beat.

The result is a tight command of the ensemble that still provides enough room for the players to move and emote comfortably. The effect was prominent throughout the three pieces he would conduct but particularly powerful in Contrafacta Hungarica’s celebration of dance music.

Guest conductor Ellie Anderson led Fredrik Söderberg’s “The Death of Pierrot.” The piece was composed in 2000 and is intensely modern in its tone, with deliriously madcap melodies and wide intervallic leaps that recall the manic style of Danny Elfman. Yet, the music never succumbs to the trap that befalls so many modern classical works: the abandonment of melody in favor of mindless harmonic experimentation.

Much like Ambrose before her, Anderson’s style was as captivating as the response it cited from the musicians. She’s careful in her sculpting of each note and shows particular craftsmanship in the way she articulates sustained notes, bringing out dynamic subtleties that would elude less skillful conductors. Currently her master’s degree in wind band at Georgia State University, Anderson is a promising arrival in the world of and is already developing a signature style that will make her a gift to ensembles for years to come.

Ambrose returned to close out the afternoon with Slavic Dance No. 8 and No. 15 by Antonín Dvořák, a fittingly upbeat conclusion. The Atlanta Chamber Winds is an intoxicating ensemble, one that deserves to be celebrated alongside the string quartets and piano combos that populate Atlanta’s chamber music scene.


Jordan Owen began writing about music professionally at the age of 16 in Oxford, Mississippi. A 2006 graduate of the Berklee College of Music, he is a professional guitarist, bandleader and composer. He is currently the lead guitarist for the jazz group Other Strangers, the power metal band Axis of Empires and the melodic death/thrash metal band Century Spawn.

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